Prince: Lovesexy

NZ Listener

Grand obsession

LOVESEXY, Prince (Paisley Park)

As the end of the decade looms, it becomes clear that Prince has been the major rock star of the 80s.

Others have packed stadia and shipped platinum, but none has created the momentum, the mystique or mind-boggling amount of music of Prince Rodgers Nelson.

What gives him the edge over all other contenders? Obsessiveness.

His songs and stage act are dominated by an obsession with sex; his recordings and performances are the product of autocratic musical control. It’s this obsessional quality that makes his work more dangerous and fascinating than that of any of his rock or soul contemporaries.

Even Michael Jackson, with all his plastic surgery, expensive toys and legendary reclusiveness, remains by comparison safe within the age-old boundaries of show-biz.

Of course Prince is part show-biz too. He’s used the classic ploy of refusing interviews to maximise his mystique, and there have been calculated shock tactics to gain attention. But there is no reason to doubt that the obsessions are genuine, and that these have led him into areas in which none of his contemporaries would risk themselves.

Lyrical taboos aside (and he has broken them all, including incest and bestiality) he has been more daring within the form of black dance music than anyone since Sly Stone. There’s his guitar, which produces a shower of sounds seldom heard since Hendrix; he has used noises most producers would toss out (check the cardboard-carton drum sound on ‘Kiss’) and his melodies seem to echo a vast and international range of influences.

Expectations of Prince have perhaps never been higher, after last year’s mature double album Sign o’ The Times. The title track of that record showed a growing concern with the ills of US society; the sophistication of the music led to suggested collaborations with Mile Davis. Earlier this year came reports of his completed Black Album, a difficult and uncompromising experiment in funk. For reasons unknown he never released it, issuing Lovesexy in its place.

This could be an uncharacteristically safe move. Lovesexy doesn’t stray far from the themes of Prince’s past work. The old obsessions are still there, but more than ever his songs show sex as a step to spirituality. In fact, in Prince’s sex and spirituality appear to have become inseparable, with violence as their polar opposite.

In this loosely connected collection of songs, his invention ‘lovesexy’ recurs as a kind of abstract concept of good (“the feeling you get when you fall in love, not with a girl or boy but with the heavens above”), while evil lurks in the form of something called Spooky Electric (“he’s got a 57 mag with the price-tag still on the side”).

If this looks a bit like hippie gibberish on paper, it becomes mored convincing when accompanied by some of Prince’s most ethereal music yet. The album’s finale, ‘Positivity’, echoes Sly’s ‘Thankyou Falletinme’ as a strange, other-worldly mood piece.

Elsewhere on the album he continues his dense, funk-rock experiments, sharing the action among his sidekicks more than he has done in the past. Drummer Sheila E makes the most of her opportunity to lash out on the feet-tangling ‘Dance On’. Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss punctuate with Parliament-like horn lines, and there are hundreds of voices – many of them Prince’s, multiplied – singing, sighing and screaming throughout.

Lovesexy is not Prince’s masterpiece. But it is a tantalising half-step forward on a path that, over ten years, has become more interesting at every turn. Prince, soon to enter his second decade of stardom, has both his mystique and musical imagination firmly intact.

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